The Raptors are doing great. Splendidly, in fact. Just over two-thirds of the way through the season, Toronto is second in the Eastern Conference with a record of 39-19, only two-and-a-half games behind conference-leading Cleveland.
Furthermore, the Raptors own the sixth-best point differential in the NBA. At +4.5, their point differential trails only the Clippers and the “big four” of title contenders: the Cavs, Spurs, Warriors, and Thunder. Although it’s not in the top tier of the NBA, Toronto is safely ensconced in the next group of teams.
All in all, the Raptors are in good shape, and Masai Ujiri felt no need to shake things up before last week’s trade deadline despite the team’s gaping holes at the forward positions. DeMarre Caroll’s eventual return from a knee injury will shore up the three, but Luis Scola is currently the starting four. The Argentinian means well, but at this point his career, he’s simply not a viable starting power forward on a team that fancies itself a contender.
Ujiri chose not to address that problem, and Scola remained the starter. His reasoning, presumably, was that the Raptors are clearly a cut below the NBA’s elite, and it would make little sense for them to go all-in for a season in which they don’t have a real shot at a championship.
However, was it really the right move to pass on acquiring a power forward like Ryan Anderson? Should the Raptors really be waiting until next year to make a serious push for a title?
I think not. Toronto is one of the best teams in the league right now, and they can’t pass up this opportunity. There’s no guarantee that the Raptors will have a shot like this one with their current team. Who knows what will happen in the future?
Next year, and for years to come, Cleveland will still have LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, Boston’s young core will continue to get better and better, and other teams, like Detroit, Orlando, Milwaukee, and more, will be far more competitive than they are today. In two years, this Raptors team won’t even have a guarantee of a home playoff series, let alone a top-2 seed in the conference.
That prediction assumes that Toronto continues to improve, or, at the very least, maintains their current level of play, but that’s no guarantee either.
This season, the Raptors are about $1.6 million over the salary cap, shelling out $71.6 million to field the team. Next season, however, Toronto already has $82.7 million committed to twelve players, and that’s with DeMar DeRozan’s $9.5 million player option. Barring a catastrophic injury, DeRozan will decline his option, and command a max deal on the open market, one that will start at $25 million. The Raptors are stuck in a bind: Resign DeRozan and lose flexibility, or let him go elsewhere and lose continuity?
Luckily for the Raptors, per Zach Lowe, the salary cap for the 2016-17 season is currently projected to be at $92 million, rather than the $89 million that the NBA originally projected, giving them extra flexibility. However, they’ll still be a few million dollars over the cap. hindering Ujiri in trades and free agency.
The salary cap for the 2017-18 season is expected to be $108 million, which will allow Toronto to resign Kyle Lowry, who will decline his player option, without going over the cap. However, Lowry will earn at least as much as DeRozan, if not more (the exact amount is uncertain due to the uncertainty about the exact salary cap, which dictates max salaries). Even if we conservatively project Lowry’s 2017-18 salary to be $25 million, the Raptors will still be bumping up against the cap.
If Toronto resigns both Lowry and DeRozan to max contracts, then by 2017-18, it will be spending $98.6 million on six players: Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Jonas Valanciunas, Cory Joseph, and Terrence Ross. That’s a lot of money to commit to six players who collectively are, at best, solidly above-average. Filling out that roster would be nine players making close to the minimum, but even those cheap players will push Toronto over the salary cap.
It’s fine to commit a ton of money to a few players and go over the salary cap in the process. Teams like the Cavaliers, the Thunder, and the Warriors do it, but those teams are giving their money to some of the best players in the league, not just good ones, like the Raptors.
Even worse, unlike the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, the 2018-19 season won’t have a big salary cap jump, so there won’t be any cap relief for the Raptors in the near future.
There are still some bright sides to Toronto’s situation. The salary scale for draft picks is locked in regardless of what happens with the cap, and, in addition to owning all of their own first rounders, the Raptors also own the Clippers’ 2017 first round pick and the lowest of the Knicks’ and Nuggets’ 2016 first rounders. Those picks will provide cheap and (hopefully) valuable players, allowing Toronto to spend elsewhere on its roster.
However, Toronto’s picks will be in the mid-to-late 20s, while Los Angeles’ choice will be in the early-to-mid 20s. Only the lesser of New York and Denver’s first rounders will be in the lottery, so Toronto will have to draft extremely well to nab productive players from those disadvantageous draft slots.
We haven’t even delved into the Lowry’s advancing age (he turns 30 in less than a month), or DeRozan’s limitations (he can’t shoot threes), or any other problems that might crop up over the coming years.
Now, at least, the Raptors know that they’re a top team, and, although the Cavaliers look unstoppable, they’re only one fortuitous injury away from being in the NBA Finals. And that’s just as things stand right now. Imagine if Toronto had added Anderson; it would have become a serious threat to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It’s always risky to make a big move, especially when there’s an uncertain reward, but it’s clear that there’s far more uncertainty a few years down the line than there will be in a few months.
There were definitely some good reasons for the Raptors to refrain from making a big trade before the deadline, but in a few years, they seem likely to regret their decision.